Ex-DA chief hits easing food imports

Bella Cariaso - The Philippine Star
Ex-DA chief hits  easing food imports

MANILA, Philippines — Only importers will benefit from Administrative Order 20 issued by President Marcos – reportedly without consulting concerned officials – to remove non-tariff barriers to agriculture importation, a former agriculture chief said yesterday.

In an interview with The STAR, former agriculture secretary Leonardo Montemayor said that the AO, reportedly the idea of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), would have adverse impact on agriculture, particularly on the local fisheries and sugar industries.

“It will weaken the local agricultural sector, especially fisheries and sugar. Worse, it did not undergo consultation. Based on my knowledge, the Department of Agriculture has a different position on this,” Montemayor said. 

Agriculture Assistant Secretary and spokesman Arnel de Mesa declined to comment. 

Citing constraints that increase importation costs and limit the supply of farm goods, President Marcos ordered the removal of non-tariff import restrictions through the issuance of AO 20.

In the AO, the Chief Executive likewise instructed the DA, Department of Trade and Industry and Department of Finance to ease, among others, the procedures and requirements “in the licensing of importers, minimize processing time of application for importation and exempt licensed traders from submission of registration requirements.”

“This (AO 20) was pushed by the economic managers, particularly NEDA. The meaning of NEDA is now national importation and development authority or NIDA and not NEDA,” Montemayor said.

“In the case of sugar, there is a de facto import quota restriction where it needs the approval of the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) Board. Second, on the fisheries, you cannot import unless there is a certificate of necessity to import from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR),” he pointed out.

According to Montemayor, AO 20 clashes with the Philippine Fisheries Code or Republic Act 8550 and Republic Act 10659 or Sugarcane Industry Development Act of 2015.

“In both cases, laws are being followed in the implementation of quantitative restrictions. The question is can an administrative order overrule the existing laws, and second what will be the impact on local fisheries and sugar production,” he added.

Montemayor said AO 20 has effectively removed the oversight functions of both the SRA and BFAR.

No guarantee

At the same time, Montemayor said the removal of restrictions on importation is not a guarantee that the prices of food products will go down.

“It is not automatic that it will result in lower prices as in the case of rice, lower tariffs imposed on the imported rice from India, Pakistan and on imported frozen pork did not benefit the consumers,” Montemayor noted.

“What we know is that it will only benefit the importers. It will lessen the taxes they pay and they can easily import. It will also discourage our local producers,” he maintained.

Montemayor added that the government should increase the budget of the DA if it wants to boost the country’s local production.

“We are monitoring the budget of the DA for 2025 as if it remains small, it means that the government is not serious in strengthening the local production and instead it is more serious in increasing the country’s importation,” he added.

He warned that the administrative order would result in the flooding in the market of smuggled agricultural products.

For his part, Federation of Free Farmers (FFF) national manager Raul Montemayor said the government had already reduced the tariffs on prime commodities like rice, pork and corn.

“Tariffs on other products are already very low. But these have not been able to reduce retail prices. There is no assurance that reducing non-tariff measures will result in lower consumer prices. And it might only encourage smuggling, undervaluation and misdeclaration of imports,” the FFF national manager told The STAR.

“And why focus on making it easier to import. Why don’t they address the barriers to domestic trade that make it expensive and difficult to bring local products from the farms to the consumers?” he added.

Mixed reactions

Senators, meanwhile, have mixed reactions to President Marcos’ issuance of AO 20. Sen. Francis Escudero said he agreed with the President’s move “but would have preferred that more emphasis was given on local production than importation.”

“True and genuine food security is based on domestic ability and supply to answer our needs, with importation simply being a ‘stop-gap’ or in the interim while we haven’t achieved ‘food security’ in order to curb inflation of basic food staples,” Escudero added.

On the possibility of abuse by unscrupulous importers, Escudero said he is confident that Agriculture Secretary Francisco Tiu Laurel Jr. would be able to effectively address such concerns.

“I trust that Secretary Laurel will hold accountable whoever commits abuses as I know him to be a man of integrity and will not tolerate corruption,” he said.

Sen. Nancy Binay said she thinks “it is important to first study and give appropriate direction to this policy based on the cost-benefit implications of granting relief to the importation of agricultural products.”

“While we understand that these barriers often create unnecessary complexities and costs for our farmers and consumers alike, the DA must ensure transparency once administrative measures are eased to achieve a more open and equitable market atmosphere,” she said.

“By evaluating both costs and benefits, we can guarantee that any adjustments to import regulations align with our goals of realizing food security and fostering a resilient and sustainable agricultural sector,” Binay added.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros said that while the easing of import restrictions would have benefits, they would not be enough to ease the plight of farmers and businessmen.

“Even if regulations and non-tariff barriers are relaxed, it is still necessary to ensure proper use of import permits. Even if the connivance between backers and their import partners is minimized, we still have to make sure the food on the table is safe. For example, AO 20 alone cannot eliminate the ASF (African swine fever) in pigs,” she said.

“And finally, during harvest or abundant production, it is necessary to impose the right tariff or tax on imports to avoid dumping, which is causing losses to our farmers, fishermen, and livestock keepers,” she pointed out.   –  Cecille Suerte Felipe

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